John Thompson medium bio
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John Thompson
Medium-length biography (see also short biography and My guqin work)
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John Thompson, in his work with the Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts from 1980 to 1998, did much to broaden the appreciation of Asian culture, aiming in particular to further the international position of the arts of that region by emphasizing them simply as 'arts', rather than as 'traditional arts', or 'ethnic arts'.

His work and performances on the Chinese silk string zither (qin, or guqin -- old qin) are part of this same work.

After studying at The Asheville School (North Carolina), earning a BA in musicology at Haverford College (Pennsylvania), an MA in Asian studies at Florida State University (Tallahassee), and doing further studies in ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Thompson began studying the qin in 1974 with Sun Yü-ch'in (1915-1990), a qin master from Hebei province who went to Taiwan in 1949 and in 1989 became one of the first people honored as a Living National Cultural Treasure by the Republic of China.

Because of the relatively small number of pieces in the current qin repertoire, in 1976 Thompson started reconstructing (dapu) qin melodies from old tablature (which describes in detail tunings, finger positions and stroke techniques, but doesn't directly indicate note values). He began by focusing on melodies from the earliest large extant collection, Shen Qi Mi Pu (Handbook of Spiritual and Marvelous Mysteries, 1425). In 1977 he began consulting Tong Kin-Woon in Hong Kong. Since 1990 he has also consulted qin masters in China, and in 1992 the National Union of Chinese Musicians invited him to Beijing as the focus of a seminar on Shen Qi Mi Pu. Since then he has often been invited to perform in China.

After 1991, having completed his transcriptions (350 pages of staff notation) and recordings (about five and a half hours total) of all the music in Shen Qi Mi Pu, he began learning music from later handbooks, in particular Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (<1491). Under a grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council in 1997 and 1998 he published Music Beyond Sound, a CD and a book of transcriptions of the music in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu. Then in 1999 and 2000 he completed his CDs and transcriptions of the main project, Shen Qi Mi Pu. This latter publication includes six CDs and three ring-bound books of staff notation.

In 1980 Thompson took a job editing publications for Hong Kong's Festival of Asian Arts, then from 1986 to 1998 he was the festival's Artistic Coordinator. In this capacity he spent considerable time traveling in Asia to see performances and meet artists and organizers, in between living on Cheung Chau, an island one hour by ferry from Hong Kong with no cars. Here he was able to continue work on his reconstructions of old qin music, as well as create new music developed from its tradition.

In 2001 he married Suzanne Smith and moved with her to the New York city area. In 2009 they moved to Mumbai, then in 2011 to Singapore. Since 2013 they have been based back in the New York area. In all places John has focused on his own guqin activities: performing, researching and teaching. To date he has completed reconstructions of over 300 qin melodies and songs from before 1700. Most of these can be heard on his website. In 2019 veteran Hong Kong film director Lau Shing-hon completed a two-hour documentary about this work.

Further information:



The Asheville School, Asheville, N.C., 1963
Haverford College, B.A., 1967 (Music)
Florida State University, M.A., 1971 (Asian Studies)
University of Michigan, graduate studies in ethnomusicology and Chinese (2 1/2 years)
Mandarin Training Center, Taiwan Normal University, classical Chinese (2 years)

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